(I skipped over uninteresting bits, they are the single-lined dot dot dot)
Chen Mou’s “Atypical” Graphic Novel about Three Kingdoms Made Him Famous For 15 Years
by Chen Ting Jun
Many people have a familiarity with “Three Kingdoms” stories. The fifteen-year syndication of “The Ravages of Time” has fundamentally flipped “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” on its head. Just like Hong Kong’s police dramas, Ravages no longer depicts good guys and bad guys. Everything is rooted in reality and desires. This history is all about the jungle law.
“Green mountains remain, under pink sunsets.” …
In the dramatic field there was an old saying, “three thousand for Tang (dynasty), eight hundred for Song (dynasty), an endless number for the Three Kingdoms.”
Mitsuteru Yokoyama, Yoshito Yamahara, King Gonta’s respective works “Sanguokushi”, “Ryūrōden” and “Sōten Kōro” were all popular manga. Hong Kong comic artist Chen Mou’s (real name Chen Hai Feng) “The Ravages of Time” is no exception.
Since 2001, this series has been in syndication for fifteen years, with fifty-six volumes in publication and sold over a hundred thousand copies. People outside the field have been considering him as a comic artist of the “hall of fame” level. Of all “Three Kingdoms” retellings, Chen Mou’s work is one of a kind.
Loyalists Speak Slander; Disloyal Ones Have Justification
“That’s the subtleties in politics.”
“The Ravages of Time” is a work that encompasses Art of War, politics, philosophy, and real life struggles. The protagonist is not Shu’s Liu-Guan-Zhang trio, nor Prime Minister Cao Cao of Wei. Instead, it’s the “treacherous vassal” Sima Yi who was born with a “wolf’s neck” (to be able to turn one’s head 180 degrees without moving the body; describes an evil person).
Under Chen Mou’s pen, the wise and the brave consider every angle, leading to escalating tension. Like he says in the graphic novel, be it Dong Zhuo, Yuan Shao, Liu Bei, Cao Cao or the Sun clan of the southeast, “Everyone will come up with an excuse in order to conquer the world.” Nobody is right, and nobody is wrong. Benevolence and Righteousness as preached by the loyalists is a form of “slander,” while the conspiring traitors may appear lawless but justifiably so. “These lies are the subtleties in politics.”
Fourty-six year old Chen Mou came to Kaohsiung International Comic and Animation Festival wearing thick-rimmed glasses. At first glance, Chen Mou looks very much like director Giddens Ko. But he exudes another kind of aura. Ko has that boyishness about him, whereas Chen Mou is much more reserved.
Compared to the treacherous power struggles within his graphic novel, Chen Mou always wear an honest smile.
When the topic of work came up, the first story he shared was about the “cockroach neighbor” in his desk. “It’s so strange! I moved to a different office recently, but the roach family still followed me! I can’t help but respect them for their die-hardness!” He laughingly said that it was the inspiration for the “Propagation” philosophy of the Sun clan; gather talents, gather wealth, then take root in the southeast to accumulate power.
Work fills Chen Mou’s day. Everyday he works from ten in the morning to seven at night, and all done at the office. Fifteen years and fifty-six volumes later, we have just seen the conclusion of the “Battle of Red Cliff.” Ms. Jian, a reader at the convention said, “We don’t know how long the wait will be. Maybe we’ll have to ask our children and grandchildren to burn the books so we may read the new releases in Heaven!” Chen Mou laughs uncomfortably, “A comic artist’s job can be very depressing.” Busy work tied up his schedule. Chen Mou was married in 05, but his honeymoon was delayed for several years.
When I asked about his reason for getting into “art”, he was very frank, “For girls! Men’s instinct is to get girls!” He was good at drawing in elementary and middle school, “Back then I drew robots, Gundams and such.” Suddenly, a proud smile creeped up on Chen Mou’s face, “When girls saw me draw, they would crowd around me and give me their photos!”
Chen Mou had exposure to “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” since childhood. “In the beginning it was due to video games. The game I played didn’t have Chinese text, so Cao Cao was spelled ‘Ciao Ciao’, which I thought was a dog’s name!” Then he started to look into the historical text about Three Kingdoms, “It’s like reading a Walkthrough. And I went into a crazy buying spree for anything that’s related.” That’s when the epic took root in his heart.
Art and Three Kingdoms were once tools for Chen Mou to “pick up girls” or “play video games.” Then he found new “pick up” techniques in university. “I wasn’t really a rebel, but rebels looked cool, so I pretended to be super rebellious.”
He grew his hair long, made it Reggae style, and learned electric bass so he could play heavy metal and rock out all day.
“I used to criticize everything. Anything at all was worth fighting against.” Chen Mou chuckled, “But I wasn’t actually good at fighting. I knew long ago that it was pointless to struggle. My rebellion and frustration against society were all a charade.” Chen Mou was never one to deviate from the establishment. He graduated from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University as a graphic designer and naturally entered the Advertisement industry.
He became an art director in the business. Chen Mou wasn’t satisfied, however, because all of his hard work was in service to a product, “Advertisement could be fun, but the real fun will always be ‘personal creation’.” Compared to Heavy Metal, he then made the truly rebellious decision that will change his life’s direction.
So he bit the bullet and left the Advertising field to become a full-time comic artist. “My income shrunk immediately. I had to draw comics while taking cases on the side.” Yet his motivation to draw only grew, for he has found his life’s aspiration. He entered into the field of comics in 1997, with his “God Pretender” graphic novel winning the Best Art Award in the third “Asia Manga Summit.” Despite only being able to eat two meals a day, he endured the most difficult days of his life with support from family. And “The Ravages of Time” also brought him renown.
Chen Mou’s art style is detailed while mixing both realism and expression. There were many “Three Kingdoms fans” who criticized Ravages when it was first published. They said Chen Mou’s distortion of history is “disrespectful to China’s history.” But Chen Mou believes that “history is written by the winners.” He said, “No dummy could earn a place in the history books. Like the politicians of today- they are actually really clever despite their occasional absurdity.”
Draw Politics Into the History
Yuan Shao is carrying a burden, “like the Kuomingtang.”
Through the graphic novel, he subverted many tropes about loyalty, treachery, foolishness and wisdom in “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”
Chen Mou said, “I never believed that China’s history is real!”
When it comes to battle of strategies, Ravages is equally brilliant. During the battle of Red Cliff, Cao Cao knew the Sun clan planned to burn his chained warships, so he played along to trap Zhou Yu. The latter in turn played along and gave Cao Cao a counter checkmate. Each faction had skirmishes inside and outside the battle, both knowing full well what the opponent’s next move is. Chen Mou builds a history upon this formula, tying interconnected details and making the plot wave surge forward with great momentum.
The modern day political scene is equally full of treachery. Is he “using the past to allude to the present?” Chen Mou shook his head and said cautiously, “I did reference some political figures, but it was mainly based on that time period.” When he was momentarily less self-conscious, however, he let slip, “Actually Yuan Shao in the book resembled the Kuomingtang!” Yuan Shao in Ravages is a fake loyalist who secretly supported his son’s path toward world domination. Yuan Shao carried that heavy “burden”, which did resemble the KMT party in some way.
He’s been drawing since he was twenty-six. Chen Mou was determined, “I will continue to draw! Many comic artists’ work started to decline after they turned forty, but I think there are still many interesting areas to dig into! It’s like a fresh start to find even more ways to tell a story.”
Privately Life Is Simple
Trust in Fate, “Life is easier that way.”
Despite his meticulous story plotting, he’s not so “strategic” about his life. He gave himself the pen name of “Chen Mou”- “a person named Chen”, so that he may live like an everyday person.
“I’m gullible.” Chen Mou chuckled, “I’m a bleeding heart to random beggars on the street.”
Schemes and trickery, “Entertainment industry, stock market, politics, all are arenas for such methods.” For a comic artist, it’s enough to leave them in the story. Chen Mou’s attitude about the comic is serious, but he became animated when talking about his son. “My son is a total despot. He’s temperamental. After I read him ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, I asked him about the moral of the story. He said, ‘Those villagers are so stupid!’ Shouldn’t the story have taught us not to tell lies?” Chen Mou laughed, like a typical dad who babies his son.
Nobody believed in fate in Ravages. They only believed in themselves. “But now I believe in fate, because life is easier with that mentality.” He paused to bring up his son again, “Like my son’s arrival into this world. It’s fate…”
To Chen Mou, fill the art and story with tension, but life should be kept simple. “My son said, he wants to be a Taxi driver when he grows up!”
This might not be the Sun clan of the southeast, nor the propagation of cockroaches, but Chen Mou’s own way of continuation.